The Trump administration is seeking to implement a series of major reforms at Voice of America's Persian News Network, an effort that comes after years of complaints alleging the outlet has exhibited a pro-Iran bias in its reporting, senior U.S. officials told the Washington Free Beacon.
VOA Persian, a taxpayer-funded news service that broadcasts in Farsi with the mission of countering the hardline Iranian regime's anti-U.S. propaganda, has long been a source of frustration for Iranian dissidents and anti-regime voices in Congress. Its broadcasts, critics allege, consistently portray Iran's government in a glowing light, undermining the outlet's mission of providing an unvarnished view of the Middle East.
After years of complaints and investigations by Congress, the Trump administration is taking action, according to Brian Hook, the State Department's top Iran envoy. Hook and other senior U.S. officials told the Free Beacon that the administration is pushing a series of reforms at VOA Persian that include a change in leadership, a complete overhaul of its programming, and new mandates to ensure coverage no longer fetes the Iranian regime.
Hook said the recent Senate confirmation of Michael Pack as the new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, VOA's governing body, has paved the way for the administration to root out corruption and mismanagement at VOA. Pack, a conservative filmmaker and Trump ally, has been viewed with contempt by top VOA officials. Since his appointment earlier this month, two top VOA executives stepped down, citing concerns the outlet would no longer retain its editorial independence. Trump supporters, however, view Pack as an agent for change at a taxpayer-funded organization that has long faced accusations of liberal bias.
Trump has been vocal about his distaste for VOA's coverage, which is often critical of his administration and its policies.
"I hear often from the [Iranian] diaspora about problems at VOA, and I know the value that VOA's Farsi language service can have if run properly and, conversely, how detrimental it can be if run improperly," Hook told the Free Beacon. "I look forward to a new day for VOA's Persian service as new leadership comes in under Michael Pack who can ensure accurate, effective, and engaging content worthy of taxpayer dollars."
Last year, VOA Persian received $17 million in funding from the U.S. government. While VOA news outlets are free to pursue stories without intervention by the government, the Persian service has put considerable resources into stories that paint the regime in a favorable light, critics say. It has banned prominent anti-regime voices from appearing on-air and canceled shows that are popular among dissidents and Iranian expats living in America.
The time has come for a "new direction for VOA Persian," particularly as "misinformation, disinformation, and Iranian regime propaganda is at an all-time high," Hook said. "We are confident that tangible changes will be made so that taxpayer money spent on providing news and information to the rest of the world about America's policies is accurate, reliable, and counters disinformation by regimes, like Iran, which are harmful to U.S. interests."
A VOA spokesperson disputed claims of bias at the outlet, telling the Free Beacon that the network "has been on the forefront of confronting the disinformation efforts of the Iranian regime and enhancing U.S. efforts to speak directly to the Iranian people and the global Persian diaspora."
Since its establishment in 1979, VOA Persian has been one of the only U.S. agencies to communicate directly with the Iranian people, the spokesperson said. The spokesperson cited numerous interviews with Hook as evidence it is not biased but did not address bans of anti-regime voices.
Hook has appeared on the network 26 times, including for seven exclusive interviews. VOA Persian also carried 17 of his live speeches and aired 24 reports that included his recorded statements. It has also interviewed a variety of GOP congressional hawks to present their views to the Iranian people.
A senior U.S. official who spoke to the Free Beacon about reform efforts said VOA Persian is among the least effective U.S.-funded news bureaus. Concerns, the official said, reached a tipping point in 2014 when the Free Beacon first reported that a prominent Iran critic had been banned from the network over his anti-regime rhetoric.
Following that report, a bipartisan group of lawmakers petitioned then-secretary of State John Kerry to investigate allegations that VOA Persian's leadership routinely censored negative coverage of Iran's ruling government.
"This has been a problem for a long time but really became a huge problem in 2014," the senior U.S. official, speaking only on background about ongoing reform efforts, told the Free Beacon. "VOA Persian went significantly downhill in quality, content, programming, and became rife with management issues and personnel problems."
Trump, the source said, has made reforming the network a priority.
The proposed reforms, many of which are likely to be pursued by Pack in his new role, include ousting VOA Persian's current leadership and revamping the network's coverage to erase instances of pro-government bias. This would also include a "mandate for accurate and timely reporting of U.S. policy," an area where the outlet has significantly lagged behind competitors, according to the senior administration official.
Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said these reforms are long overdue.
VOA Persian has "failed to deliver timely, well-crafted objective news and reports, to explain Trump administration's Iran-policy, and to be a good representative of American values," Ghasseminejad said, citing systemic mismanagement and politicization at the highest levels.
"Over the years, VOA Persian's management has managed to shut down its most successful shows and send capable hosts and producers into exile or marginalize them," he said.